Friday, September 25, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1936

The Contenders:

Luise Rainer: The Great Ziegfeld (winner)
Carole Lombard: My Man Godfrey
Norma Shearer: Romeo and Juliet
Irene Dunne: Theodora Goes Wild
Gladys George: Valiant is the Word for Carrie

What’s Missing

There are a lot of places we could go with Best Actress 1936 and a few places I’m happy I don’t have to go. Primarily, I’m both surprised and pleased that there was no nomination for Greta Garbo in Camille. I’m surprised because it seems like a role designed for a nomination, but it’s a role and a movie I hate despite how much I often like Garbo. I’m less surprised at a lack of nomination for Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls. It’s a nothing of a film, but Durbin was clearly the most popular entertainer of the day for a good reason. And, of course, there are some choices that would be fun, but would also never be picked. Leading the way there is Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter. Sadly, it’s also true of Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man, which is a shame. Loy was a real talent, but this was much less a movie than The Thin Man. Oscar was almost certainly not willing to nominate an essentially silent movie in 1936, which leaves out Paulette Goddard in Modern Times, although I love that performance. Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth would have been a very interesting choice, and I think I could make a case for Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Given a chance to make one addition, it would be Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m getting rid of Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet immediately. This not a knock on Shearer, who could be a fine actress. It’s in reaction to the ridiculous casting of this film. Juliet, in the play, is 13. Norma Shearer was 34 when she played this role, and that’s flatly ridiculous. I get that it was a star vehicle at the time, but she had no business in the role, and this performance had not business being nominated. It feels like the nomination came from being a prestige production and no other reason. Her being here is ridiculous.

4. Putting Luise Rainer in fourth is more about The Great Ziegfeld than it is about her, but only by a little bit. The truth is that I simply don’t remember her role that well or her in the movie. That’s not a good sign when assessing an award like this one. But, I’m sure she was fine in the role, and since this big, blustery, 3-hour epic was the flavor of the month, it’s not a surprise that Rainer walked away with the statue. In truth, though, I only really liked the big musical numbers in this movie and the drama didn’t do anything for me.

3. I’m probably punishing Carole Lombard for the role and the movie here as well. I know My Man Godfrey is popular and well-liked from this year, but it’s not a movie I love no matter how much I like William Powell in general. I like Carole Lombard in general, but I found her very annoying in this film. That’s never going to go well when it comes to any acting category. That a role I really don’t like and a performance I am ambivalent toward made it to third indicates how weak I think this category is for 1936.

2. I will be the first to tell you that Valiant is the Word for Carrie is melodramatic pap, and it absolutely is. However, Gladys George is an absolute charmer for most of the movie, and that’s especially true in the beginning. When Carrie is a loose woman and working as a prostitute, she’s a really engaging character, and George gives her a great deal of character and wit. While I disliked this movie for its pablum content, I loved Gladys George in it. She’s what is worth watching here, and she transcends a suspect script.

1. My choice from the nominees is Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild. This is another movie that is light on plot, and as a comedy from this era of Hollywood, it’s going to depend a great deal on screwball humor. The plot works, though, but much of it does because of the performance of Dunne, who works Theodora in several different directions to give her three dimensions. Of all of the nominated movies, it’s the one that is the most fun, And Dunne is having the most fun with the role. She’s fine as the winner of the nominees, but not overall. As much as I like her and enjoyed this role, Hollywood should have legitimately gone elsewere.

My Choice

Jean Harlow is my choice, and while that might be tempered by the fact that I know in hindsight she would die tragically the following year, I think I can make the case for her. Harlow was easy to cast as a wisecracker, and that makes her easy to like in any role, but very much in this one. Oh, you could argue that Myrna Loy is as much a lead here, or that all of the roles are essentially supporting, but Harlow is the draw in this, and she’s got my vote.

Final Analysis


  1. I'm with you on your last two all the way.

    Norma is absurd in probably the worst cast production of the story I've seen, John Barrymore is equally out of place but at least he injects some fun into what otherwise is a turgid dog of a film.

    Luise Rainer has one big scene in Ziegfeld and she plays it well but she is completely supporting. Metro wouldn't have allowed someone they were building into a star to be slotted there but it's major category fraud. That she won makes it an even sharper cut.

    I didn't mind My Man Godfrey and Carole Lombard in it though I enjoyed her more in the same year's The Princess Comes Across. As popular as she was it seems incredible that this was her only nomination. She was a freelancer though as was Barbara Stanwyck and that may explain a little why neither ended up in the winner's circle since at the time the studios would give their big voting block to their contract stars more often than not.

    I guess of these nominees my winner would be the same as yours. Gladys does what she can in Carrie but Dunne has more to work with in Theodora.

    Alternates that would have made more sense than most of what's here would include Sylvia Sidney in Sabotage (she's a big miss), Rosalind Russell in Craig's Wife, Garbo in Camille (I know you don't like the film but I think she's very good in it), Margaret Sullavan in The Moon's Our Home and Paulette Goddard should have definitely been here.

    But again we agree about Jean Harlow. Myrna Loy is wonderful in the movie but Connie Allenbury isn't nearly the character that Gladys is and Jean plays all the various nuances perfectly. I see where you might think because of her sad fate that you're more inclined to award Harlow but her work really is the standout of the year. She's a perpetual motion machine from the minute she hits the screen and forsakes her vanity for the benefit of the role, that beauty shop scene is a hoot but she looks a fright. Even in her few still moments she shifts her tone and plays them precisely as they should be.

    1. I'm not as aware of Harlow's career as you are, so knowing that this is prime Harlow isn't as obvious for me. She so clearly gives the best performance in the film, though. The four main roles are probably equal in terms of plot importance, but Harlow is the one who is so easy to remember.

      Myrna Loy was pretty much always wonderful. How she avoided an Oscar nomination through her entire career absolutely escapes me.

      I have to think that Goddard's omission came specifically from it being essentially a silent film. Otherwise, her not being here is inexcusable (she'd be my second in an open field).

  2. I admit, I've never seen any of these films nor those performances. I've only seen 3 films from that year. I'd make the case for Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers but not enough to create a full opinion.

    1. I can't stress enough how much of a joy Libeled Lady is. It's a screwball comedy that works the entire way through. Theodora Goes Wild is also a great deal of fun, and while not quite as good overall, it's a pure pleasure.

      The rest? My Man Godfrey has a lot of fans and is worth seeing, but the others can be safely ignored. Gladys George was a lovely actress, but Valiant is the Word for Carrie is pure glurge.

  3. Of the nominees I only saw Lombard in My Man Godfrey and I did like it and her a lot better than you. Thus, I have very little basis for who should have won. Norma Shearer was probably nominated because she was on the inner circle of early days academy, so a bit of nepotism there. Jean Harlow would be a solid pick any year.

    1. I know you're well past this year, but if you can track down Libeled Lady and Theodora Goes Wild, do so. They're both a treat.